Huckleberry Finn - The Development from a Vernacular Character to an Individual Personality

Seminar Paper 2003 15 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Freedom – A Central Theme Of The Novel

3. Huck’s Character – An Analysis
3.1. Huck As A First-person Narrator
3.2. Huck’s Mental Development Throughout The Novel
3.2.1. His Behaviour Towards Jim
3.2.2. Huck’s Two Serious Moral Crisis – A Comparison
3.2.3. Social Criticism

4. Conclusion

5. List Of Reverences

1) Introduction:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain, is one of the most famous novels in modern American literature. Many people have read it, almost everyone has at least heard of it. There are hundreds of essays concentrating on various aspects of the book. They deal with the influence that Mark Twain’s own experiences had on the story, seek to interpret the surrounding nature as symbols for freedom or suppression, depict the change in the criticism of the book during the years, and others ask whether or not Huckleberry Finn is a racist book and should be removed from public libraries. All themes seem to be interconnected and it is difficult to not digress into detailed description and thus loosing the overall view.

One topic many of the critics have in common is that they deal very intensively with the role of Huckleberry Finn, his way of telling the story as a first-person narrator, his view of the society, what he comments and what he simply reports, and his relationship to Jim, Tom and other figures crucial to the novel. The goal of this paper is to examine Huck’s character closely, point out changes, developments and probable relations to the outcome of the plot.

The second part of the paper will deal with the aspect of freedom, which is important to the novel. Huck seeks freedom from civilisation, whereas Jim tries to flee from the bondage of slavery. The goal is to compare Huck’s and Jim’s interpretation of the word “freedom” and point out probable potentials for conflicts for the protagonists arising from their perception of this term.

The main portion of the paper will deal more intensively with an analysis of Huck’s character, followed by a short description of Huck’s role as a first-person narrator. This perception is essential to the plot and also to the reader’s insight of Huck’s character.

Huck’s behaviour towards Jim within the first 15 chapters of the novel is particularly interesting. Thus, in the next part I will describe their perception of each other closely and draw possible conlusions on how this influences Huck’s mental development.

There is a growing conflict between Huck’s conscience (formed by society) and what his feelings tell him to do. This becomes especially obvious in the chapters 16 and 31, where Huck becomes doubtful about helping Jim to run away from Ms. Watson.

The goal of the paper’s next section is to compare these two chapters and more importantly, place emphasis on the differences between the depths of the inner conflicts, Huck’s reasoning with himself and its final effect on his behaviour. In this context it will also be worthwhile to take a look at the language used by Huck during this time of inner conflict. After all, he has only the language of the society he starts to doubt with which to express himself.

The last chapter of the paper will deal with the social criticism this novel provides, especially in the middle section, from chapter 17 to chapter 32. Emphasis will be placed on Huck’s awareness of the Grangerfords’ feud with the Shepherdsons, his perception and treatment of the king and the duke and finally on the impact these experiences have on his own way of thinking and acting.

Finally, there will be an attempt to conclude what influence the development of Huck’s character has on the novel and also on the reader. In conclusion a short outlook will be given on how Huck’s life might continue after Jim has been freed and Aunt Sally offers to adopt him.

2. Freedom – A Central Theme of the Novel:

The term “freedom” is of great importance to the plot, as are its different interpretations. Huck and Jim both want to be free, but they interpret the word freedom in completely different ways. As Henry Nash Smith describes in his essay, Huck seeks freedom from the repressions of society, personified by the respectable widow Douglas and Miss Watson with her well-intentioned civilizing efforts and of course the violent and constantly drunk Pap.[1] Floating down the river on the raft and being lazy is the perfect freedom for the boy. He feels “free, easy, comfortable”[2], words that all are synonymous for him. Of course, that kind of behaviour would not be respected by the members of the Southern society, as Peter Messent states: “Freedom for Huck lies outside the normal boundaries of society, and indeed what he would call freedom, society would call license, moral irresponsibility, a fracture of the social character.”[3] Huck tries, sometimes unconsciously, to reject the norms of society, but at the same time he cannot live without them. This contrast causes him great moral conflict. It is only later in the novel that he learns the real reasons why he wants to flee from society and that he can end his moral conflict.

For Jim, freedom certainly means something different. He wants to escape from slavery, but he does not reject the society in general. He wants to become autonomous and then re-enter the very same society Huck is escaping from.[4] “I owns myself, en I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars”[5], he states, when he first meets Huck on Jackson’s Island and tells him about his escape from Ms. Watson’s house. This sentence shows, as Messent states, what will also to be discovered in some of Huck’s speeches later on and what is essential to his inner conflicts: Jim counts his worth in terms of money, describes his own values in exactly the same terms his white masters would do. Using the language of this society, he is unable to completely free himself from his slave self.[6]

3. Huck’s Character – An Analysis:

3.1 Huck as a First-person Narrator:

To be able to interpret Huck’s mental development, it is interesting to take a short look at how the story is told. In contrast to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, which is written in the third person, in the sequel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” Huck tells his story as a first-person narrator, so that the reader constantly looks through his perception. Joe B. Fulton is of the opinion that using this method, the world (the reader) cannot look at Huck from the outside and judge him, but rather has to experience the world how it occurs to Huck.[7] He states that “instead of describing his hero, Twain allows his hero to describe his own world and reveal his attitude towards it. Even Huck hardly describes himself, preferring to characterize himself in the process of telling his story.”[8] Also Brander Matthews points to the remarkable self-restraint with which Mark Twain lets Huck comment on things, not allowing himself to be carried away by long lectures on moral, religion or politics. “The comments on what he [Huck] sees are his comments – the comments of an ignorant, superstitious, sharp, healthy boy, brought up as Huck Finn had been brought up; they are not speeches put into his mouth by the author.”[9] These speeches gain special importance from chapter 17 on, when the raft gets destroyed by the steamboat, Jim even disappears for two chapters. Huck meets the Grangerfords and later on the king and the duke. In this second half of the book emphasis is placed not so much on Jim’s flight, but on “a satiric description of the society of the pre-war South”.[10] “Huck was essential to this purpose, for Mark Twain meant to view his subject ironically through Huck’s eyes”,[11] as Henry Nash Smith puts it.

3.2 Huck’s Mental Development throughout the Novel:

3.2.1 His Behaviour towards Jim:

Huck’s character undergoes significant change during the novel. The boy is exposed to several rather extreme situations, where he has to decide on whose side he wants to be or how to behave and then take the consequences for his decisions. These two sides are either the Southern pre-war society or the side of the outcasts, run-away slaves - people that are said to be undeserving of a place in society. Huck himself belongs to neither of these two groups and is therefore often torn by doubts according to what social norms he should follow.

Especially in the beginning of the book Huck tries to behave in conformity to the social community around him, but never quite succeeds. This becomes particularly obvious, when he first meets Jim on Jackson’s Island. Ssociety demands that he immediately goes back to the town and reports on Jim, but Huck decides different: “People would call me a low down Ablitionist and despise me for keeping mum – but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t agoing to tell, and I ain’t agoing back there anyways” (Mark Twain 1985: 48). Walter Blair points out that by accepting that people would possibly not talk good of him if they found out that he knew where Jim was, he shows how much his moral standards have been influenced by his upbringing.[12]

On the one hand Huck runs away from civilization, but on the other hand he still wants to follow its pattern of behaviour. A good proof for this assumption is the way in which he tries to play games with Jim. In chapter ten he tries his first “Tom Sawyerish practical joke”[13] with the rattlesnake. Different from Tom, Huck feels bad and ashamed, when Jim gets seriously ill from the bite, though he does not dare to tell Jim about his guilt: “I warn’t going to let Jim find out it was all my fault, not if I could help it” (Mark Twain 1985: 59).

Especially in the first 15 chapters of the novel, Huck cannot mentally separate himself from Tom (and society). He repeatedly refers to him as an authority for tricks and adventures. When he flees from Pap’s cabin, he says: “I did wish Tom Sawyer was there; I knowed he would take an interest in this kind of business, and throw in the fancy touches. Nobody could spread himself like Tom Sawyer in such a thing as that” (Mark Twain 1985: 37). And in chapter 12 he asks Jim if he would “reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing” (Mark Twain 1985: 74) and adds: “I wish Tom Sawyer was here” (Mark Twain 1985: 74). In his essay “Huck Finn and the Metaphors of Society” Richard Poinier states that “Huck’s imitations of Tom indicate the degree to which he must become an artificial man, an imitator of literary models, if he is to be a part of society at all or be accepted by it as a ‘real’ boy, like Tom.”[14]

In chapter 15 Huck plays his final joke on Jim, when he tries to make his companion believe that their separation in the fog was only something Jim has dreamt and is now taking for real. However, this time Jim is not so easily taken in. When he realizes that he has been tricked, he tells Huck how very disappointed he is, because the boy had degraded their friendship by telling these lies merely to make Jim look ridiculous:

En when I wake up en fine you back again’, all safe en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin ‘bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat trash dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed (Mark Twain 1985: 94 f).

Richard Poirier is of the opinion that “it is only at this point, not at any earlier one, that Huck does separate himself from Tom”.[15] Huck says: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger – but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither” (Mark Twain 1985: 95).

At this point at the latest, the attentive reader has to notice that there must be more to the person of Huck than just his function as kind of a stock character, representing the comic figure of a young, uneducated boy that runs away from home to experience some adventures. Concerning Huck’s apology to Jim, Henry Nash Smith states that

the narrator whose stream of conscious is recorded here is much more than the innocent protagonist of the pastoral idyll of the raft, more than an ignorant boy who resists being civilized. The vernacular persona is an essential comic figure; the character we glimpse in Huck’s meditation is potentially tragic.[16]

Furthermore he is of the opinion that Huck’s humble apology is striking evidence of the growth in his moral insight.[17]

3.2.2. Huck’s Two Serious Moral Crises – A Comparison:

During the novel, two times Huck becomes doubtful about helping Jim to escape. These mental quarrels can be found in chapter 16 and again in chapter 31 and are essential to the development of Huck’s character.

The first mental struggle takes place, when Jim and Huck mistakenly believe themselves to be very near Cairo and Jim cannot sit still for another minute, because he thinks he will be a free man so very soon. Hearing these words, Huck begins to realize his dilemma: “I begun to get it through my head that he was most free – and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way” (Mark Twain 1985: 97). He even lets the situation appaer more dramatic, when he quotes his conscience directly:

What had poor Miss Watson done to you that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor woman do to you that you could treat her so mean? Why, she tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you your manners, she tried to be good to you every way she knowed how. That’s what she done (Mark Twain 1985: 97).

Huck is about to paddle ashore and tell on Jim, when his companion suddenly starts to praise him and calls him his “bes’” and “only fren’”. So when Huck comes to meet two slavehunters, he isn’t able to tell them about Jim any more. He has to think about the nice things they did and the long nights they spent talking on the raft and so finally his heart wins over his conscience. However, he does not totally realize what decision he has just taken, because he still feels bad, when he returns to the raft and to Jim, but says to himself:

What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and it ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? […] So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time (Mark Twain 1985: 101).

In chapter 31, shortly after the king and the duke gave Jim away to the Phelps, Huck experiences his second, much worse moral crisis. Henry Nash Smith is of the opinion that “the account of Huck’s mental struggle in the next two or three pages is the emotional climax of the story”.[18] In contrast to chapter 16, Huck is now totally alone and cannot be influenced in his decision from another person. For the first time the conscience employs not only secular, but also religious arguments in the matter of Jim, as Henry Nash Smith remarks.[19] Huck speaks of “the plain hand of providence slapping me in the face” (Mark Twain 1985: 233) and of “One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t agoing to allow such miserable doings” (Mark Twain 1985: 234). Smith also makes another interesting point. In chapter 16 Huck quoted his conscience in direct speech, as if he is not responsible for what it says, whereas in chapter 31 he paraphrases these admonitions and includes them into his own discourse.[20] He feels great relief, when he finally decides to write to Miss Watson, but not for long. When he thinks of Jim and all the things his companion has done for him, his heart wins over his conscience and he decides for Jim’s freedom: “I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again” (Mark Twain 1985: 235).

Walter Blair defines the conscience as “a person’s sense of right or wrong developed by his community”[21] or “the attitude he has taken over from his environment”[22], as Smith puts it. Richard Poinier states that “in this novel, conscience is the product of the ‘games’ of the comrades and of the ‘authorities’ of books, including the Bible”.[23] It is his innate sound heart that finally wins over the conscience, a conscience unobstrusively but steadily formed by the society Huck is actually escaping from.

A thing to add is that although Huck acts according to his heart, he is not able to free himself from the language of the settled world. In chapter 16 for exampple he says: “Here was the nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children – children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm” (Mark Twain 1985: 98). Referring to this theme Richard Poirier states that “Huckleberry Finn is an instance of what happens to a novel when society […] provides no opportunity, no language, for the transformation of individual consciousness into social drama.”[24]

3.2.3. Social Criticism:

In chapter 17 the journey on the river is interrupted, when the raft gets destroyed by a passing steamboat. Huck is able to rescue himself to the shore and meets the Grangerfords. He searches for Jim, but cannot find him and so assumes that he must be dead. Even later, when Jim reappears, he plays only a passive role. In the fog the raft had accidentally passed Cairo, so the freeing of Jim cannot be the main theme of the book any longer. Henry Nash Smith is of the opinion that the first chapters of the novel are rather part of a common adventure story, whereas the long middle section, beginning with the introduction of the Grangerfords, turns into a social satire with much more narrative depth than before.[25] Huck’s function is mostly that of a narrator, who describes the people of the so called society and comments on them. At first he seems quite impressed by the Grangerfords’ style of life, but the more he gets to know them and the more he learns about the feud, the more uneasy he becomes about their character and behaviour. His sympathy for these superficial aristocrats surely ends, when the feud finally gets out of control and the two families kill each other: “It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain’t agoing to tell all that happened – it would make me sick again if I was to do it” (Mark Twain 1985: 127).

In chapter 19, when Huck and Jim are back on the raft, the king and the duke appear and take over the action. According to Henry Nash Smith the motivation for introducing these two characters is to have a reason to continue the journeys down the river while at the same time describe the towns and their inhabitants alongside the Mississippi shore - that means continuing and finally completing the social satire of the Southern pre-war society.[26] Huck soon notices that the new passangers on the raft are nothing but frauds, but does not say so or tells Jim, because he wants to “keep peace in the family” (Mark Twain 1985: 138). When Jim gets suspicious that the two men are no truly aristocrats and just cheating, Huck tells him that they were lucky to not have met Henry VIII, because he was much worse. He concludes that if one “takes them all around, they’re a mighty ornery lot. It’s the way they are raised” (Mark Twain 1985: 170). As Richard P. Adams writes in his essay “The Unity and Coherence of Huckle Huckleberry Finn”, this part of the novel underlines his observation “that the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, by their more serious imitation of aristocratic ways, are only presenting a more pernicious version of something which at best is a sham and a fraud.”[27]

Huck is quite unhappy with the way the King and the Duke fool the people in the towns they pass by on the raft, yet he takes no action against it. However, the betrayal of the Wilks sisters is a different story. “It is enough to make a body ashamed of the human race” (Mark Twain 1985: 178), he states. When the king and the duke first cry at Peter Wilks’ coffin, Huck comments that he never saw “anything so disgusting” and that it was “just sickening” (Mark Twain 1985: 180). When the slave family gets seperated and everyone is crying, he states, similar to his remark at the feud: “It most made me down sick to see it” (Mark Twain 1985: 200). He finds himself so well taken care of by the girls, which strengthens his bad conscience and his will to finally revolt against these mean frauds: “I felt so ornery and low down and mean, that I says to myself, My mind’s made up; I’ll hive that money for them or burst” (Mark Twain 1985: 192).

According to Richard P. Adams the function of the king and the duke is to allow Huck to experience what he still had to learn about social realities of slavery, so that he would be prepared and strong enough for his mental struggels yet to follow.[28] The lesson to learn for Huck, so Adams writes, is that “kings, dukes, pirates, robbers, confidence men, and slaveholders are the same, and all sorry. Anyone who respects them is a fool, anyone who fears them is a coward, and anyone who supports them or submits to them is a slave himself.”[29]

Once Huck’s education about society is complete, he decides to free Jim and ends his moral conflicts. Now the last section of the book can begin. According to Richard P. Adams Tom Sawyer’s role is, besides ending and completing the story, “to further and complete the satire on sentimental literature, from which Tom draws his inspirations.”[30]

4. Conclusion:

The intention of the previous parts of this paper was to show that the development of the character of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most central themes of the novel. This change in his character, and especially his mental struggle during some periods of this change, is so important, because it makes the reader aware of the many insufficiencies of the society of that time – insufficiencies that probably would not have been noticed by the readers, if Huck had just stayed the funny and uneducated boy of a childish adventure story one comes to know in the beginning.

It is Huck’s very own story that he tells and because he is the first-person narrator, one is allowed insights into his psyche that would never have been possible otherwise. The boy is white, yet an outcast of society and so he is able to comment on the things that happen rather impartially, which gives the reader the opportunity to see everything from a different perspective. Huck unites society and freedom in one person, which makes the contrast especially obvious, as Smith put it.[31]

“Unconciously, but with deep conviction, he understands the society to which by accident of birth he belongs, and refuses to submit to it”[32], Richard P. Adams states in his essay. And that is exactly the impression one gets reading for example the chapters about the Grangerfords, the king and the duke, or the two moral crises in chapter 16 and 31: Huck’s conscience might be dominated sometimes by the aristocratic society, but his heart, his “ very own” conscience is what truly guides him.

At the end of the book Huck seems to have completed the journey from boyhood to maturity. Richard P. Adams writes: “His attitude at the end is a mixture, full of ironies and reservations of many kinds. Having made the great decision to repudiate society, physically, morally and spiritually, he can hardly return to it without equivocation.”[33] And indeed it is hardly possible to imagine that Huck will ever live with Aunt Sally, becomes “sivilized” and falls back into the patterns of behaviour used by society. This would run counter to the whole process of his development. He will continue to develope and be ready “to light out for the territory” (Mark Twain 1985: 321) any time.[34] Thus, to put it as Adams did: “The conclusion is deliberately inconclusive.”[35]

5. List of Reverences:

Adams, Richard P., “The Unity and Coherence of Huckleberry Finn”, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Simpson, Claude M. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968): 41-53

Blair, Walter, “So Noble … and So Beautiful a Book“, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Simpson, Claude M. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968): 61-70

Fulton, Joe B., “’Playing Double’ – The Ethics of Realism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Fulton, Joe B.: Mark Twain’s Ethical Realism – The Aestetics of Race, Class, and Gender (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997): 53-87

Matthews, Brander, “Unsigned Review, Saturday Review“, Mark Twain – The Critical Heritage, ed. Anderson, Frederick and Sanderson., Keneth M. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971): 121-125

Messent, Peter, “Racial Politics in Huckleberry Finn“, Peter Messent , Mark Twain (London: Macmillan Press LTD, 1997): 86-109

Poirier, Richard, „Huck Finn and the Metaphors of Society“, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Simpson, Claude M. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968): 95-101

Smith, Henry Nash, “A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience“, Mark Twain – A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Smith, Henry Nash (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963): 83-100

Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (London: Penguin Books, 1985)


[1] Henry Nash Smith, “A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience“, Mark Twain – A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Henry Nash Smith (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963): 84 (from now on quoted as “Smith 1963”)

[2] Peter Messent, “Racial Politics in Huckleberry Finn“, Peter Messent , Mark Twain (London: Macmillan Press LTD, 1997): 92 (from now on quoted as “Messent 1997”)

[3] Messent 1997: 92

[4] Messent 1997: 95

[5] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (London: Penguin Books, 1985): 52 (from now on quoted as “Mark Twain 1985”)

[6] Messent 1997: 93

[7] Joe B. Fulton, “’Playing Double’ – The Ethics of Realism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, Joe B. Fulton: Mark Twain’s Ethical Realism – The Aestetics of Race, Class, and Gender (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997): 60 (from now on quoted as “Fulton 1997”)

[8] Fulton 1997: 60

[9] Brander Matthews, “Unsigned Review, Saturday Review“, Mark Twain – The Critical Heritage, ed. Frederick Anderson and Kenneth M. Sanderson. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971): 122

[10] Smith 1963: 86

[11] Smith 1963: 86

[12] Walter Blair, “So Noble … and So Beautiful a Book“, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Claude M. Simpson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968): 65 (from now on quoted as “Blair 1968)

[13] Smith 1963: 93

[14] Richard Poirier, „Huck Finn and the Metaphors of Society“, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Claude M. Simpson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968): 99 (From now on quoted as “Poirier 1968”)

[15] Poirier 1968: 100

[16] Smith 1963: 94

[17] Smith 1963: 89

[18] Smith 1963: 90

[19] Smith 1963: 90f

[20] Smith 1963: 91

[21] Blair 1968: 70

[22] Smith 1963: 92

[23] Poirier 1968: 100

[24] Poirier 1968: 101

[25] Smith 1963: 84

[26] Smith 1963: 86

[27] Richard P. Adams, “The Unity and Coherence of Huckleberry Finn”, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Claude M. Simpson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968): 47 (From now on quoted as “Adams 1968”)

[28] Adams 1968: 50

[29] Adams 1968: 49

[30] Adams 1968: 51

[31] Smith 1963: 92

[32] Adams 1968: 51

[33] Adams 1968: 51

[34] Adams 1968: 52

[35] Adams 1968: 52


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Huckleberry Finn Development Vernacular Character Individual Personality Literature Advanced Seminar



Title: Huckleberry Finn - The Development from a Vernacular  Character to an Individual Personality